The northern county of Northumberland is steeped in folk music history, influenced primarily by exported songs and music from neighbouring Southern Scotland and other nearby English districts in Durham and Tyne and Wear. The area even has its own type of bagpipe, namely the Northumbrian smallpipe, making Northumbria something of a unique locale in which to take up an instrument. Famous names from the county include '70s prog-folkers Lindisfarne, pipes-queen Kathryn Tickell and the band you are about to read about, award-winning The Unthanks.
Formerly known as the rather more long-winded Rachel Unthank and the Winterset until 2009, the more streamlined The Unthanks have been eschewing the traditions of folk at every turn. The first album under the new name was voted Folk Album of the Year 2009 by The Guardian and Mojo magazine and, despite being a collection of mainly plaintive traditional songs, there was thankfully little mention of a 'Danny Boy' or other oft-recorded laments. For album two in 2010, entitled 'Last', they covered Tom Waits and King Crimson, which in so-called folk-circles is known as throwing a curveball. This excellent album reached the UK top 40 and garnered critical acclaim from several corners.
For album three however, they downed their writing tools altogether and plumped for an entire album of cover versions, choosing just two contrasting songwriters in Robert Wyatt and Antony & the Johnsons. 'The Songs of Robert Wyatt and Antony & The Johnsons' (natty title) proved to be a sympathetic take on the pair's languid songs and a perfect addition to the band's ever-increasing repertoire.
During 2012, you can witness this huge advancement in recorded choice by seeing The Unthanks perform in different formations. An intimate tour (kind of unplugged) will begin next week, which will involve the group performing in small halls and churches around the UK throughout April and May, including Newbrough, Ely (sold out), Redhill and Notting Hill. Tickets vary in price, mostly from £14 to £17.50.
The band's much-publicised collaboration with Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band will then resume on 9th June in Halifax, before heading to the No Direction Home 2012 festival in Nottinghamshire and shows in Liverpool, Grassington and the newly-added York Minster gig on 17th August. All of the above dates are on sale now, with the Brighouse dates weighing in at around £20 upwards.